GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "H" page 1
 

John Constantine, Hellblazer: Damnation's Flames   1999 (SC TPB) 176 pgs.

coverWritten by Garth Ennis. Illustrated by Steve Dillon, with William Simpson, Peter Snejbjerg.
Colours: Tom Ziuko, Stuart Chaifetz. Letters: Clem Robins, Gaspar. Editors: Julie Rottenberg, Stuart Moore.

Reprinting: Hellblazer #72-77 (1993-1994), with covers

Recommended for Mature Readers

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by DC / Vertigo Comics

The back cover of this TPB proclaims John Constantine is one of the most "recognizable and enduring characters" in comics. Hmm. Can you spell "hyperbole"?

Personally, I wasn't that familiar with John Constantine, Hellblazer, prior to reading this. I'd come across him guest starring in a couple of other comics, and I had seen the Hollywood movie, Constantine (in which the blonde Englishman was transformed into a dark-haired American -- so much for "recognizable"). But the premise behind the character is...well, actually, even after reading this collection, it's still vague. He seems to be guy who has the ability to perceive supernatural things, and knows a trick or two about how to deal with them, and...well, it's not clear whether he usually acts to help people, or mainly from self-interest, or just by happenstance. In this collection it seems a little of all three.

I was going to describe the story first, then review it. But it's probably easier to start the other way.

They often say write what you know, and one wonders if Garth Ennis has taken that advice a little too much to heart. He seems to have a great passion for evoking his milieu of hard drinking Englishmen, Irishmen, Scots and what have you -- but he could work a little harder on remembering this is a supernatural comic. Oh, that might seem an odd complaint. Ghoulish and grisly things happen, and there are ghosts and demons. But Ennis seems almost to see that stuff as a distraction from the real core of the series...which is booze, smokes, swearing and soccer arguments. Ennis' Constantine is a hardcore pup crawler who seems to like nothing better than to get smashed with a few of his mates...wherein they reminisce about other times they got smashed, and talk about their favourite drinks, and the best cigarettes. In between, they throw up, or urinate in alley ways, or on each other.

Okay, I exaggerate...the guy who urinates on John is a bad guy, not one of his mates.

Did I mention this is a "mature readers" comic with plenty of cussing (though no "F" word, curiously), and puking and peeing and gore? I've said before the problem with the "mature readers" comic is that most mainstream comics have had the ability to deal with complex social and political issues for decades -- and sometimes have. So when it comes time for a writer to exercise the freedom inherent in a "mature readers' comic...all that's left to him is, not deeper social or political insights, but just a lot of bodily functions and cussing. In fact, ironically, there's a scene here where a character goes on a political diatribe in among talks of favourite pubs and who has the biggest breasts on East Enders...and the joke is that's the one time Constantine wasn't listening!

And although it's got a complete four-part story, plus some one-shot stories...a lot of it's all tied into previous events, with most of the characters familiar, recurring faces. In what promised to be the collection's best story, a guy in a pub (told ya) tells a tale of Constantine -- and we know he and John had a falling out. So we listen to the story, waiting to figure out how it caused their falling out...then the story sort of peters out. Then it turns out their falling out had nothing to do with this story, as John and the guy start reminiscing (in yet another pub) about some time when they were drunk (again!) when they said some unpleasant things to each other...which may or may not refer to a previous comic. (When I first read it, I didn't realize we were supposed to recognize the guy as a recurring character).

The four-part story arc from which this collection gets its names has Constantine, apparently trying to pick himself up after a really bad period, wherein his lover dumped him and he ended up a derelict on the streets, taking off across the Atlantic for New York City. There Constantine is ensnared by an old foe, Papa Midnite (who in the movie was a friend), and ends up trapped in a kind of Hell-dimension version of America, with cannibals on the street and John hooking up with the ghost of a certain assassinated president...still gorily dripping blood. It's the most "horror-adventure" oriented of the stories...and it's still not much to write home about. Not a lot happens plot or character-wise. Save John decides that the only reason he ended up in this position was because he was trying to shed his cynical, nihilist ways...so the story ends with him deciding to go back to being a self-described "right bleeding bastard"...but, honestly, he didn't really seem like that sweet a guy to begin with.

Ennis uses this story to rage against America with vitriolic frenzy (the image of Uncle Sam as a gun totting pimp with a urine stain on his crotch maybe says it all), which might've been interesting if you really believed there was an intellect behind the "shock" tactics. A few years later, Alex Ross and Steve Darnall did the comic Uncle Sam that might well have been inspired by this...but Ross and Darnall's work was more politically articulate. Ennis' just comes across as the ravings of an ugly drunk who hates everyone, with America only being the convenient target of the moment.

And the fact that the Irish Ennis wrote this for an American comic read mainly by Americans, and it didn't cause too much of a controversy (so far as I know)...one suspects that's precisely how the readers took it. As a gloriously punk-ish excess of profane imagery and even more profane language...and not much more. (And the fact that Ennis would later create Preacher -- a profane, profanity laden post-apocalyptic odyssey through America, also for DC, would suggest that, love it or hate it, he is fascinated by America).

Ennis does have a nice feel for some "kitchen sink realism" (though whether his depiction of U.K. accents is really accurate, is not for a Canadian like me to say). And there are some nicely effective, realist scenes of the characters sitting around, shooting the breeze. But Ennis goes to great lengths to convincingly re-create a reality...of characters I probably wouldn't want to hang out with in real life, let alone read about. When Ennis has an alcoholic Irishman, obsessed with booze and binge drinking, getting offended when someone makes a slur suggesting Irishmen are drunkards...I'm not quite sure what Ennis' point is. Add to that, much of the dialogue is written in dialect, and using colloquialisms, and where half the conversations seem to be referring to previous events and characters, and you have scenes which can be hard to follow. Yet those scenes tend to be the more memorable parts of this book -- as mentioned, the heavily supernatural "Damnation's Flames" story arc takes up the lion's share of this collection...yet it made less of an impression in my memory than the more domestic scenes of John just hanging with his mates!

Hellblazer has had a few writers over the years, so Ennis' run may not be representative of the series as a whole (I read somewhere suggesting Ennis' preoccupation with pubs and drink was his own contribution to the series). So maybe it would be worth trying a non-Ennis batch of stories. Unfortunately, the library where I picked this up had some other Hellblazer TPBs...and they were all by Ennis! (Though according to some on-line reviews, this maybe isn't representative of Ennis' best work on the series).

Genuine flashes of effective realism and convicting dialogue aside, little here interested me in the character or his world -- "enduring and recognizable" or not.

Cover price: $27.95 CDN./ $16.95 USA


cover John Constantine, Hellblazer: Rare Cuts 2005 (SC TPB) 160 pages

Written by Jamie Delano, with Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis. Illustrated by Sean Phillips, David Lloyd, Richard Piers Rayner, Mark Buckingham.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: Hellblazer #11, 25-26, 35, 56, 84 (1988-2000)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Additional notes: reprints a John Constantine time line and look at various locales where the stories occurred, excerpted from Vertigo Secret Files: Hellblazer #1

Recommended for Mature Readers

Published by Vertigo Comics (an imprint of DC Comics)

John Constantine (star of Hellblazer) is one of the more successful non-mainstream, non-kiddie oriented characters in comics (that is, of those who don't wear tights and who don't go to Riverdale High), yet my previous two experiments picking up a random TPB collection left me decidedly unenthused about the property. So for my third time out, I picked up this collection, which is a selection of various unconnected tales, none apparently reprinted before, by various creators -- making it better as a sample of the series as a whole.

And three of the tales are written by Jamie Delano who, though he didn't actually create John Constantine (Alan Moore first introduced the character in the pages of The Swamp Thing), nonetheless could stake claim to being the character's principal guiding force, having written most of the first few years of the Hellblazer series, as well as the occasional subsequent tale.

In reviewing the other TPBs, I commented that the writers seemed to have trouble remembering this was a horror comic -- sure, there'd be gore and horrific, supernatural things, but they often seemed a sidebar to the slice-of-life, John-and-his-mates-at-the-pub scenes. Well, the early tales here are more explicitly horror in tone and intent. But there are different types of horror. And horror in Hellblazer seems to be from the decidedly unpleasant side of the street. This isn't the gothic landscapes and folk legends evoked by Mike Mignola's Hellboy, nor is it the "classic" monster school of a Dracula pastiche. Rather, this is an ugly horror where unpleasant things happen to unpleasant people, with underlining themes of child molestation and the like, where innocent children are just as likely to end up consigned to the eternal flames of hell and John Constantine often emerges from his supernatural encounters as practically the only man left standing, cynically lighting a cigarette and thinking how life sucks.

The first story reprinted is a flashback tale (a lot of the stories here are like that) of how a young, novice John and some mates decide to exorcise a demonic influence from a run down night club. It doesn't go well. There's some appealing traditionalism to the idea of a group of paranormalists descending on a cursed location (ala The Haunting). Artist Rayner and Buckingham's realist style suits the realism of the story...but doesn't do much for the mood, lacking much in the way of shadows or atmosphere. But, as I say, it ends up being more unpleasant than spooky as, despite the presence of corpses and a demonic monster, the characters themselves so blasť about it all (until, of course, it goes wrong).

This is followed by a two-parter penned by Grant Morrison (pinch hitting in the middle of Delano's run) with John in a largely unemployed blue collar town during a folk festival. It starts out well, building the mood and tension, with echoes of The Wicker Man and the like. But it just doesn't justify two issues, as the main horror -- the towns folks become possessed and act out their innermost, depraved natures -- is pretty obvious and run-of-the-mill. Usually the catalyst for a plot...not the plot itself. Even the how/why of the supernatural stuff is a bit vague, having to do with a nuclear missile base nearby. David Lloyd's art is effective at creating a spooky, horror mood...but as usual with him is a bit muddled in the actual storytelling in spots.

"Dead Boy's Heart" (by Delano with Sean Phillips on art) shows some of the conflicted creative impulses that seemed to define later stories. There's nothing overtly supernatural about it, as it's a flashback, this time to John's miserable, dysfunctional childhood. Like much of the Constantine tales, the English ambience is effectively evocative, the rural dialogue here conjuring up old Dennis Potter teleplays. But, again, it's steeped in a raw, unpleasantness -- where even John is a troubled youth given to creepy, delinquent actions. Still, it's not uninteresting on its "kitchen sink" level.

In a sense, the problem with what I'm defining as "unpleasantness" is that it just ends up...monotonous. Just as another reader might dismiss stories that seem too sickeningly cheery, the repetitive tone of these stories becomes it's own trite cliche.

The final two stories are among the better ones, both still playing the same theme of a world where everyone is kind of abrasive and where dark impulses and sins lie just under the surface, but the story telling is a bit more effective, the instilling of a desire in the reader to see how the tale is going to play out better realized. One story, by Garth Ennis, has a chance encounter embroiling John with a guy on a subway who starts behaving oddly, the other is another flashback by Delano again, this time to John's teen years and his first encounter with an adversary also supernaturally inclined. Both straddle the supernatural and the slice-of-life in tone and intent, but work reasonably well for all that.

But as it stands, I think I'm probably done with John Constantine for now. Of the three TPB collections I've read, this is the best, with some diversity of tales, and not quite as seeming reliant on knowing details of the character's past adventures (though there is some of that). But it just doesn't really ring my bell. Constantine himself not being a compelling enough character, and both he -- with his constant narcissistic cynicism -- and his world a little too repetitive, and with stories that just didn't quite hold my interest being more, as I say, unpleasant than spooky.

But for those looking to sample the series, this is probably as good a tome as any (especially as there's even a time line for the character included, recounting his life and adventures to that point...though spoiling a few plot lines here and there).

Cover price: $17.99 CDN./$14.99 USA.


cover by Lee Bermejo John Constantine, Hellblazer: The Red Right Hand 2007 (SC TPB) 144 pages

Written by Denise Mina. Illustrated by Leonardo Manco, and Cristiani Cucina.
Colours: Lee Loughridge. Letters: Jared K. Fletcher. Editor: Jonathan Vankin.

Reprinting: Hellblazer #223-228 (2006-2007), with covers

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Recommended for Mature Readers

Published by Vertigo Comics (an imprint of DC Comics)

The first Hellblazer collection I happened to read left me decidedly unenthused. But with issues numbering in the two hundreds, John Constantine, Hellblazer, is one of the longest running comics created post-1970. So I figured I should try him again and picked up this more recent TPB collection on a whim...and my ennui remains rather intact.

At the same time, my assessment is a bit complicated.

Reading a John Constantine comic for me is, I suspect, like reading a super hero comic for those who've never read one before. I'm the first to complain about super hero comics and their over-reliance on continuity, but a casual reader will at least know the foundations -- who the hero's friends are, what his powers are, the "rules" that exist in his reality. But with Constantine, I know none of that...and these collections don't make it much clearer, as characters appear who John apparently has some back story involvement with, demons crop up he's supposedly encountered before, and John himself wanders about apathetically saying he "can't do normal"...but it's not actually clear what he does do, either. One reviewer said that with Hellblazer comics you don't really need to have followed the continuity like you do with Spider-Man or the X-Men. But that hasn't been my experience.

BUT...

Apparently this follows on the heels of the earlier collection, Empathy is the Enemy. So when you feel like you've been plunged into a story in the middle -- well, you have!

That might temper my criticism -- except that there's nothing to indicate that. Indeed, this collection begins with an unconnected issue -- that was maybe a deadline filler -- further leading you to assume when you start on the five-part "Red Right Hand" story arc, you're starting at the beginning. Maybe one can't entirely blame writer Denise Mina, so much as the packagers of this collection. (Though why did Mina title this different from its predecssor when it's just the second half of a story arc?).

And even accepting that some of the confusion would be dispelled having read the previous TPB, doesn't change the fact that there are still characters and references that kind of benefit from knowing John's history.

Still, on to the review.

The collection begins with the one-off, "Season of the Zealot", which basically encapsulates the problems, as John is summoned by someone he already knows, with mystical abilities that aren't clearly articulated, all due to the fact that some ill-defined villain is doing something that's kind of unclear. Got all that? The friend seems to be dying, so John tries to get him out of the city...and then a few pages later, the friend insists John take him back, and that John's actions were only motivated by John's self interest. Except that's what John says when he first starts trying to get the guy out of London. In other words, it's not like it's a revelation (guest artist Cristiano Cucina even draws the exact same head on John in the two panels). And the climax? Haven't a clue what happened or why.

So then we get to The Red Right Hand arc.

It's exceptionally well illustrated by Leonardo Manco who has a detailed, realist style, without sliding (too much) into the photo-referenced stiffness that can sometimes go hand-in-hand with that style. The characters' expressions and gestures match the needs of the scene. It's perhaps overly dark -- yeah, it's a horror comic, but it can be heavy-handedly dark. Likewise with Lee Loughridge's colours.

Curiously, Hellblazer is a "mature readers" comic, with plenty of cussing (including the "F"-word...indicating editorial standards might have changed since the Ennis issues). Yet there are a couple of times where an angry character gestures at people...using two fingers. And you kind of wonder if Manco drew it as The Finger, and then a nervous editor decided to have an extra finger drawn in prior to publication.

Anyway...

John is in Glasgow, where the city is under quarantine because of a plague of suicides, the cause of which was a magician who built an "empathy" machine, hoping to bring peace to the world. But instead of everyone being united in brotherhood, the memories of people with dark, or twisted, histories overwhelmed everyone else, driving them to kill themselves. The magician, Evans, wants John to help him stop the empathy plague before it spreads throughout the world, and a car load of John's acquaintances show up to help.

And then the story ensues. Sort of.

Wanders amiably might be a better description.

John is an apathetic nihilist who doesn't want to get involved -- it's a character-type that is kind of annoying in a narrative, because it's just an excuse for wasting a lot of pages as characters try and coax him into helping, not progressing a plot. Granted, it does build to a cute idea that the chain-smoking John only begins to think he'll have to pitch in when he realizes that being quarantined means the city's run out of cigarettes! Later John wanders off, hooks up with some acquaintances, visits a museum...all while the plague/quarantine is in effect. It's almost like people tackling Hellblazer comics can't decide if they're horror/thrillers...or slice-of-life. Or even a comedy. Despite all the death and grisly things, there's not a lot of tension or thrills being generated, as the characters phlegmaticaly banter among themselves. Even the climax, and what the fate of the world rests upon, seems a bit tongue-in-cheek.

There are some interesting ideas overall in the story -- the very notion of treating a supernatural disaster as a plague, where authorities have cordoned off the city, and other things. But the plot is pretty thin in terms of twists or turns. And the more supernatural it gets...the less clear it is. Whereas characters receive explanations of obvious things, there's a scene where John and another character enter a supernatural realm...where I wasn't really sure what they were doing or why...or how.

As mentioned, John Constantine himself is supposed to be a bit of an apathetic nihilist -- so much so, it's not really clear why the other characters are so insistent on his help (by the end, John's contribution is pretty minor). And one can't help but assume that fans of the comic dig that character. I don't mean, they like him as an anti-hero...I mean they subscribe to his point of view, a kind of Goth/punk fatalism. The resolution of the crisis itself is basically steeped in a kind of cynicism that extends far beyond John's personality.

Realizing this may be the second half of a story arc, some of its confusion is perhaps easier to forgive (but doesn't change the fact that the publisher needed to make that clear!!!). But at the same time, other flaws -- the thin plot, the kind of slow, laissez-fair pacing, the lack of an interesting, intriguing character -- don't exactly have me rushing out to read the first half. Writer Mina certainly crafts decent enough dialogue but, I'll admit, reading two collections by two different writers puts me no closer to understanding the appeal of Hellblazer. Two hundred plus issues notwithstanding.

Cover price: $17.99 CDN./$14.99 USA.


Hellboy, vol. 1-5
   For my review of all the Hellboy books to date (including Seed of Destruction, Wake the Devil, The Chained Coffin, The Right Hand of Doom, and Conqueror Worm) go here. My review actually undersells my opinion. That is, I liked the Hellboy stories when I first read and reviewed 'em...but I find I like them even more in subsequent readings!


cover The Helm 2009 (SC TPB) 104 pages

Written by Jim Hardison. Art breakdowns by Bart Sears. Finished by Randy Elliott.
Colours: Dan Jackson. Letters: Dave Lanphear. Editor: Dave Land.

Reprinting the four issue mini-series (2008)

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Dark Horse Comics

Mathew Blurdy is an overweight, twentysomething fanboy nerd, who eats too much junk food and lives in his mother's basement. On the worst day of his life, getting dumped by his girlfriend and fired from his job, he also discovers a mystical helmet which declares Mathew is The Chosen One, destined to fight evil and inherit great power.

Except when he actually dons the helm...it suddenly announces it made a mistake and would Mathew please put it back where he found it!

But Mathew isn't so willing to let his shot at glory slip away, and so begins a story where Mathew is determined to be a hero...even as his magical helmet is an unwilling participant and despises him (frequently subjecting Mathew to a stream of medieval invectives!).

And the result is pretty funny riff on old fantasy/super hero convention..

Writer Jim Hardison marks his first comics gig with this (after previously working in film and TV) and clearly is getting a big kick out of his unlikely pairing, with humour not just stemming from Matt's inappropriateness for the role he has hijacked, but the helm's own inexperience with 21st Century pop culture (Mathew has to explain to it that a replica of an elven sword used in a "Lord of the Rings"-style fantasy movie...isn't actually made by real elves!) The result is that though a lot of the humour and the gags may be a bit on the obvious side, Hardison still elicits chuckles with the subtle phrasing and delivery (like the opening scene, where the scene starts in close up...then pulls back for the gag).

The art by Bart Sears and Randy Elliott nicely suits the material. The art here nicely straddles the comically exaggerated with the grounded and realistic -- it wouldn't take much to picture the same visuals on a "serious" comic. Which is, of course, part of the point. If the humour is meant to stem from these fantasy cliches clashing with the "reality" of a slovenly everyman, you don't want the visuals to stray too far from the real...even as they still have to convey the humour.

I might quibble about the lettering, though, wondering if the old days of hand letterers might better have milked nuance and expression from the dialogue.

The problem the story faces, though, is that beyond the core concept and the gags, Hardison hasn't fully fleshed out the rest of the narrative. For all that the helm warns of a coming evil, and Matt's grand destiny...we get very little sense of any larger plot. And the action scenes themselves tend to resolve pretty much the same (with Matt just stabbing his foes at the last minute). It isn't that there isn't a story, or that things in an earlier scene might not be relevant later, but it's all a bit thin. The cover of the third issue is very funny...but also pretty well gives away all the relevant action of that issue. When 80 percent of a 22 page comic can largely be summed up in one image and a few word balloons you know the story could use a little more to it (though one could also just compliment how cleverly concise was the cover!)

Given this is an 88 page story, there are only really three characters in it: Matt, the helm, and his girlfriend, Jill. Even Matt's mother only appears on a few pages, not really enough so to be a fleshed out character. Still, Matthew (and Jill and the helm) are a little more rounded than just the convenient conveyors of a gag or two. And the story even acknowledges some realistic aspects, like when Mathew begins to question his own sanity, realizing just how much like a delusional fantasy the situation sounds when explained out loud!

Perhaps the problem is that like with so many comics, despite this being a "mini-series", the real hope on the part of the makers is that it will lead to an on going series. The story ends, but it's a minor story, just introducing the gimmick.

With all that being said, though, it succeeds on the basic level of entertainment -- slight or not, it gets you turning the pages, with Mathew an unlikely but not unsympathetic protagonist. The story is told with a certain "mature readers" sensibility -- some profanity, and Matt and Jill sleeping together -- but no more than you'd find in a mildly PG rated movie. Which, at a time when a lot of comics seem to revel in over-the-top excesses, is kind of nice, too.

A fun read.

This is a review of the story as it was serialized in the comics.

Cover price: ___ CDN./$14.95 USA.


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